Pride and pain of Queen Elizabeth funeral for old soldier who tackled a gunman

Scots Guardsman Alec Galloway sprang into action after assailant fired six shots at the monarch during 1981 Trooping the Colour

Alec Galloway, in the green coat to the right, with the queen for whom he had risked his life as a younger man. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty
Powered by automated translation

As seven horses drawing the casket of Queen Elizabeth II turned a particular corner during the procession of her coffin on Wednesday, Alec Galloway was brought to tears.

Emotional memories of a moment of heroism came flooding back while Mr Galloway watched from his home near the royal residence in Windsor.

On the television screen was the exact spot where a gunman in the crowd had fired six shots at the monarch during Trooping the Colour for her official birthday celebrations on June 13, 1981.

Then a Lance Corporal with the Scots Guards, the 37-year-old feared the queen would be killed and launched himself at the attacker.

“I’ll never forget that day as long as I live,” he told The National.

“It’s something that will always stay with me. I thought it was a real live round and he was going to assassinate the queen.

“I ran to the barrier and shoved it against him, got the gun out of his hand and then pulled him over the barrier by his hair, and kicked him in the head to prevent him from moving."

For a split second, the soldier considered using his bayonet but decided that the dazed perpetrator, 17-year-old Marcus Sarjeant, was not going anywhere.

When police officers ran in, Sarjeant reportedly begged them to get Mr Galloway off him.

"He is very lucky," he says. "It would have been a different story if I had got him with my bayonet. He was assassinating the queen as far as I was concerned. An old man in the crowd shouted at me: 'A bit slow with the bayonet there'.”

Queen's 'marvellous' riding skills helped calm horse after shots fired

The queen, riding side-saddle on her favourite ceremonial steed, Burmese, in the elaborate uniform of Colonel-in-Chief of the Grenadier Guards, had caught sight of the gunman out of the corner of her eye.

The mare, though, was startled, more by the charging of two cavalry officers as they swiftly moved to flank her royal rider than by the shots themselves, the monarch would later say.

A skilled equestrian, the queen checked the rearing Burmese with a pull of the reins and continued with the procession, unperturbed and still smiling.

Queen and guardsman kept calm and carried on

“When the shots fired out, I got a glimpse of the queen," recalls Mr Galloway.

"It was unbelievable. I’ve no idea how she managed to stay on as the horse raised up slightly.

“She was as cool as a cucumber and held on. She kept calm and carried on as normal.”

The guardsman took his cue from his queen, straightened his bearskin hat and reassumed position on the procession.

Now 78, Mr Galloway reflects that he wasn't even supposed to be taking part in the ceremonial parade that day.

He had been assigned weapons duties to arm the guards but was asked to step in when a fellow soldier took ill.

“I had done about four Trooping the Colour parades and my role that day was to hand out the weapons,” he said.

“That morning, we had done a rehearsal at 5am and everything had gone fine. Just before 10.45am, the procession had started and then, 15 minutes later, everything changed. No one could believe it.”

As it turned out, the Colt Python was a replica containing blanks but investigating officers discovered that Sarjeant had tried and failed in attempts to obtain ammunition for his father's .455 Webley revolver.

“Thank God, they were blanks,” Mr Galloway says.

“It was a sure kill if not. I really thought it was an assassination. I thought they were live rounds.”

Speaking of his mother’s bravery that day, the then Prince Charles told a BBC documentary A Family Tribute: "The Queen is a marvellous rider. She has a marvellous way with horses. She's made of strong stuff."

Queen's attacker wanted to be 'famous' and had tried to buy live rounds

Before the incident, Sarjeant had written to the queen, warning her against taking part in the Trooping the Colour because an assassination attempt would take place — the letter arrived three days after the ceremony.

The military dropout became the first person since 1966 to be prosecuted under the 1842 Treason Act and was sentenced to five years for his “wicked” intention.

He claimed he had been inspired to seek fame by the assassination of Beatles star John Lennon six months earlier, and subsequently wrote to the queen to apologise. There was no reply.

Mr Galloway was awarded a General’s Commendation for valour but many have campaigned for him to be given a higher honour over the years.

After a review of security for future events, it was decided that members of the Household Cavalry would flank the queen from the start of the procession to offer more protection.

At Trooping the Colour a year later, she is understood to have joked to the officer on one side: “You know why you’re here? You’re the one to get shot, not me.”

Queen gave hero guard 'cheeky' winks in nod to his valour

It was not to be the last time that Mr Galloway and the monarch would cross paths.

Throughout the years, he continued to protect her in his role as a Greencoat — the ceremonial guards named after their velvet uniforms rumoured to have been originally made from material left over from curtains in Windsor Castle — at Royal Ascot.

Since 1744, the Greencoats have guarded monarchs at the race meet, and it was there one year that the queen eventually met the soldier who so fearlessly had risked his life for hers.

“The queen was presenting the winners' trophies at the Royal Box when one of my former lieutenants told her it was me who had tried to save her that day,” he says.

“She came back to the podium and said to me: “Are you the man who grabbed the gunman?”

“I said: 'Yes, your majesty.' She said: 'Well, well, well. My, my.'

Emotional moment coffin passed the scene of the shooting

“She turned to Prince Charles and said: 'This is the man who grabbed the gunman in The Mall.'

“He said: 'What would we do without you?' I replied: 'Likewise. Sir.'

“When I’m at Royal Ascot, they all come and talk to me. The queen would always give me a cheeky wink and acknowledge me."

With millions of others around the world, Mr Galloway watched the progress of the monarch's imperial state crown on top of her coffin draped in the Royal Standard on the journey to the lying in state at Westminster Hall.

Afterwards, he wiped his eyes and walked to Windsor Castle to lay flowers.

“I have shed many tears for a lady who gave us 70 years of service. What she has done throughout the world has just been unbelievable.

"She was my queen and I loved her. What a lady.

“Ma’am," he says, voice slightly cracking, "It’s been an honour and privilege serving you.”

Updated: September 16, 2022, 8:22 AM